August 2014 marks the 5 year anniversary of my leaving the institutional church in pursuit of a deeper level of fellowship and community with God and other believers. August 2014 also marks 1 year of bearded awesomeness in my pursuit of looking older and not having to shave in the mornings. Yet while having a face warming, ice cream catching face blanket may make one look more like the distinguished theologians of old; looks can be deceiving. So while beardly wisdom may be overrated, there is much to be learned from how one gathers with other believers. So without further ado here is a list of 8 things that I learned in the last 5 years after leaving a traditional church for the less formal and more intimate setting of one another’s homes.
1 – Life does not come from models.
I have met several people in the last 5 years who, after searching the scriptures, started meeting in homes. Even a casual reading of the New Testament will reveal that the early church met house to house (Acts2:46 & Romans 16:5). Yet imitating the actions of the early church will not bring genuine life but only the illusion of it. It is only when the church truly gathers around Christ that genuine life springs forth and when that does happen, you will discover that similar characteristics to the early will become evident in your own meetings and it will happen quite naturally. Certainly, the home is the perfect environment for the church; it naturally encourages relationships and can eliminate many of the distractions associated with more formal gatherings in more formal places. But it is not the be all and end all of gathering. There are without a doubt some believers meeting in traditional settings who are more alive than those who “look” more biblical outwardly.
2 – Don’t push others.
Many people feel as if they were cheated by the system and that they were lied to. The best advice that I can give anyone who feels called to leave is to do it quietly. Remember that God used the people and place you were in like stepping stones to get you where you are today. If you want to share your convictions with others, do it at their invitation and do not be surprised if they are less enthusiastic about your discoveries than you are. And if they begin to slander you, speak condescendingly toward you or spread rumors about you that are not true, shake it off and love them anyway. You are not being treated any differently than most of us were. Allow no room for bitterness and soon enough some of those same people will come around. Given time others will agree to disagree and reconcile while others still will continue to berate you. It is just the way that it is.
3 – Build relationships first.
There is an important difference between unity and uniformity. The church is to be one yet this does not mean that everyone is going to agree with every other person about everything down to the smallest detail. When gathering with others focus on them as people, get to know them and care for them. Church splits occur when stubbornness and self-righteousness become more important to us than people. When relationships have firm foundations you will find yourselves able to disagree respectfully and discussions can take place without heels being firmly planted in the ground. We do not feel threatened by those we trust and even in disagreement we can usually see their true intentions. That is not to say that there will never be a valid reason to break fellowship with someone or with a group. But the world out there sees how Christians like to tear into one another. Those attacks often move from doctrine and get personal very quickly. How dare we reject who Christ calls his own? Jesus said that the world would know his disciples by the love that they have for each other. Start there, if you have not love, you are like Dubstep* (1 Cor. 13:2).
4 – God works in spite of our short comings.
Something within us seems to believe that when God moves it is a validation of what we are doing. It is simply not true, God will work with what is available to reach others otherwise we would not see Him moving at all. I once heard someone bragging about the size and cost of their church, “How can anyone say God is not blessing us?” With that reasoning the same God that is blessing the prosperity preachers is also blessing the mosques and Hindu temples in the same area as well. When God seems to be moving, enjoy it, but do not assume that you must have finally gotten everything right.
5 – It’s all about everyone.
Love God and love people. Jesus made it simple for us. It is not about the music and the lasers or the eloquent speaker or even about the coffee. It is about God and people. Home churches come with their own set of problems. It can be difficult for newcomers to feel a part of the group when a handful of people have already developed a strong bond with one another. Are people growing in love toward one another and toward God? Are the least of these treated with respect and being cared for? Do the blind see? Church is about God, it is also about one another and further still it is about those outside of your gatherings whether they are Christians or not.
6 - Watch out for counterfeits.
There is no doubt that the Spirit is stirring the church. Many in the West are hearing the same thing from God. From South Africa to North America to Australia and beyond; people are throwing off the yoke of Constantinian churchianity and discovering something better. The house churches in China have been growing for decades at an incredible rate despite persecution. Yet just as phrases like house church, organic church and simple church have become more well-known we have also been introduced to things like the out of church movement and web church or audio church. The concept of “just me and God” is completely foreign in both scripture and church history. While one can retreat alone to the desert from time to time, it is not the place of our permanent residence. That is not to say that you need to get yourself to some sort of gathering at least once a week. That is a wrong mindset to have. All it means is that Christians need face to face time with other believers on a constant basis. No ministry, bible study or sermon in the car can replace that.
7 – There is a building that IS important.
Buildings are not the issue, much like nose hairs, they can be both helpful and hurtful depending on the situation you find yourself in. I am simply speaking here of a community where Christ is the head. You (plural) are like living stones being built up into a spiritual house with Christ as the chief cornerstone. If you want a beautiful church building, sow into their lives and watch her grow.
8 – Freedom in Servanthood.
In leaving the institutional church many people find a release from the pressures of a performance based faith. Yet you will never experience true freedom unless you remain or learn to abide in the vine. To be free is not to be independent. See how that one worked out for Adam and Eve. Rather, freedom is found in submitting to Christ. Life is found in dying to self and joy is found in a person. Freedom from sin is not merely the pardon of your wrong doings but the release from the power that it once held over you.
To sum it all up, I have learned beyond a simple theological understanding that it is all about the person, the Word, the Christ who gives us life. He lives beyond our walls and even our book in a community called ekklesia. I have heard his voice and been lifted up by his hand through brothers and sisters in whom he dwells. This is the Christian life.
*If the Dubstep remark went over your head it was a paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 13:1 for the 21st Century and a chance for me to poke some fun at a genre of music I don't quite enjoy :)